Enter The Void: A Neon Dream of Love & Death

Gaspar Noé's hedonistic/spiritual nightmare-scape belongs with the best movies of the century

Enter The Void: A Neon Dream of Love & Death
Credit: Wild Bunch/Fidélité Films

Since its release, Enter the Void (2009) has been my favourite Gaspar Noé movie. It stands out in his filmography, dialling down the exploitation enough to let its story shine, but riding the same high energy wave of disturbing violence and sexuality around the fringes of society that Noé made his cinematic signature.

I've yet to see Lux Æterna, but while Climax and Vortex (a wholly different kind of entry in his filmography) are excellent in different ways, neither feels like a “giant” movie — the kind that will continue to stand out over decades. Older Noé entries like Irreversible (2020) and I Stand Alone (1998) are powerfully disturbing and unforgettable, but their shock value accounts for a lot of their impact.

Enter The Void is on another level. I would include it in my top ten movies of the century. I have watched it several times and take something new from each viewing, with my last viewing a couple of years ago. I spotted Arrow Video’s Blu-ray box set discounted online, and decided this was an Essential Cultural Goods purchase. Time for a rewatch.

Spacing out viewings of great movies pays off. If you leave significant time between — at least several months, but preferably a year or more — it lets you forget just enough detail that the story can enter your mind as new again in ways.

Presentation helps, too. If you can see old favourites in the cinema, jump at the chance — you're not going to see them the same way elsewhere. I still kick myself for not turning up earlier in advance to a local screening of The Shining a few years ago.

I arrived shortly before the show time, excited to “viddy” one of Kubrick’s best on the big screen, only to see the last tickets sold a few spots in front of me in the queue. A mild consolation was the surprise of seeing how much interest Kubrick movies still generate in el cine. It was the biggest queue I had seen at that movie theatre (one of the last that did things the old school way, where you had to buy tickets in person on the day, at the box office).

Most of Kubrick's work draws on exploitation or sensationalism, but he knew how to match that brilliantly with substance. His movies entertained, but always told stories for bigger reasons. This balance can give movies the ability to stand the test of time, long after notable movies from the same time have been forgotten. Noé leans way harder into exploitation than Kubrick ever did, but I think some of this balance is present in Enter The Void.

… And I did see three other of Kubrick's best in the same venue, it's worth noting, during that same Kubrick season — so all was not lost.

Still… The Shining.

I meander… Point being, always take advantage of great, old movies showing up in the cinema. It's the best way to see them through new eyes.

For home viewings, don’t underestimate the power of watching a good movie with the best presentation you can muster. Watching with a bit of ceremony and full focus makes a difference.

In this case I was projecting in 1080p, with the solid bit rates of Blu-ray, a high quality transfer, lights dimmed. I watched the Arrow Video special features, and flipped through the artwork included in the box set.

Appetite whetted? Check.

Roll the feature!

I was thrilled to discover Enter The Void had new levels to unlock. After this viewing I didn't consider it one of my favourite films of the century, but one of the best films of the century.

Underneath the visual and sonic blitz of Tokyo, its neon signs, urban filth, and cultural foreignness, and the violent and sexual menace of the people we see living there, is enough depth to play next to the greatest films of all time. The anxiety of physical and spiritual dislocation, the chaos of modern society, and the elusiveness of love pervades everything in the story. It's a modern classic.

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The key thing I got from this viewing is simple: this is the story of Linda and Alex, which happens to be shot from the first-person perspective of Oscar. You might think of Oscar as a kind of zombie cameraman who we confuse at first for the protagonist, and who confuses himself for the protagonist.

To see this angle it helps not to pay too much attention to what characters say about other characters, or how they perceive themselves. There’s some complex social dynamics and misdirection in the script, and a lot of unreliable narrators. Observing their actions, detached from the social commentary that runs through the script, gives the clearer view.

Oddly enough, this mode of observation shares qualities with mindfulness meditation — tying in with the story's Tibetan Book of the Dead references and the detached first-person perspective shaping the story.

Linda and Alex are both flawed characters, fucked up and damaged in a bunch of ways, but they are also basically good souls. Alex is hedonistic, but channels that side of him into art, and also has sensible and moral, empathetic qualities. He offers good advice, and makes genuine attempts to help. Linda is emotionally compulsive, but driven by a need for love — if she is in some ways corrupted, that actually seems due to vulnerability springing from unresolved trauma. She does not just blindly seek love, but wants to care and protect those she receives it from.

The hand of fate seems to draw the two together in a complex, cosmic way. They naturally gravitate towards one another in danger.

Credit: Wild Bunch/Fidélité Films

As a counterweight to Alex, there is a relatively subtle but real cold-heartedness in Oscar, and once you are tuned in to it, it is chillingly cold — likely more than can be ascribed to the effects of the childhood trauma we see. Once noticed it seems to naturally follow that this isn't his story. Oscar starts to feel like something Other than protagonist, and it propels you to search for the beating heart of the movie elsewhere.

The visual stylings, cinematography, distinctive first-person perspective, naturalistic dialogue and acting, and atmosphere of intense danger and peril mixed with anxious adventure and a kind of modern cultural overload (supplied perfectly by the movie's Tokyo setting) are all as superb as I remember them being. A feeling of being spiritually adrift pervades, from the literal and obvious, down through almost every character we see in more subtle and varying ways.

The opening credits, whose creation is covered in detail in one of the Arrow Video Blu-ray extras, are phenomenal. I remember when the movie was released Quentin Tarantino described the credits as “top 10 of all-time,” and he wasn't wrong.

If Enter The Void participates in cultural exploitation in the same vein as, say, Lost In Translation, it is more self-aware of it. It becomes something to think about in order to understand the story. Why are these people in Tokyo? None of them belongs there. The question becomes central to understanding who (all of) these characters are. Their dislocation suggests they are all on a similar journey to Oscar.

I like to come away from viewings of favourite movies with a single key takeaway that illuminates something new to me. And I love seeing new things in favourite movies, discovering them like secret levels the filmmaker stitched into the narrative fabric.

— As an aside, there is also a kind of “hidden key” line in the script that links something Oscar says towards the start to something said by Linda towards the end. It involves the image from the poster. Watch out for it. It’s fun to notice and think about. —

My takeaway from this viewing was simple: this is the story of Alex and Linda, seen from the perspective of Oscar.

It sounds like a minor semantic distinction, but for me it transformed the moral energy of the movie. It shifts things away from the hedonistic, destructive, and nihilistically tragic, towards a fatalistic and darkly creative energy, with space for hope and beauty.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].

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